SPOILERS. Last night I went to see the latest Matt Damon and Jodie Foster movie, Elysium. The basic plot revolves around Elysium, a futuristic utopian paradise developed on a space station above earth and inhabited by the rich and powerful, whilst the poor suffer the effects of overcrowding and poor conditions on earth. On Elysium nobody is sick or hungry, whilst on earth work is sparse and medical care is severely limited.
Whilst I can hardly recommend the film (great effects, but a lousy script and a really questionable French accent from Jodie Foster), there is an interesting religious theme that seems to run through the otherwise fairly shallow plot line. Max (Damon), for example, is brought up at a Catholic orphanage, and mentored by one sister who tells him that he is special and has some great task to perform during his life. When he suffers radiation poisoning at work he decides to attempt a journey to Elysium, to break into the computer system and to be healed by the technological advances enjoyed by the privileged citizens. That journey is given greater importance when it transpires that he has inadvertently received the information required to open the facilities up to everyone, not just those with a bank account to warrant it. As one character says, ‘You can save everyone’.
This is hardly the first time that we’ve encountered a quasi-Messianic protagonist in Hollywood, but what I want to focus on is the more subtle and disturbing image of Elysium and how it reflects something of the contemporary idea of perfection, which is different from the Christian notion of heaven.
First, the very name Elysium is based on the Greek mythological Elysian Fields, which we find in Homer and Virgil. It is the place where the worthy dead are sent, and so the parallel with heaven is obvious. What is disturbing, though, is that in the movie this is a place where the privileged spend their time in selfish pursuits, ignoring the plight of those less fortunate left on earth. For the Christian, this is abhorrent; those who already enjoy the joys of heaven do so because of their lack of self-interest, because of their willingness to surrender their own lives to Christ, and who now intercede for those ‘unfortunates’ on earth who need their heavenly help. The ‘paradise’ presented in Elysium is hardly a Christian view of paradise, because it fails to embody any recognisable notion of heaven, preferring instead a materialistic and self-refential habitat.
Secondly, in the Russian Kontakion we pray, Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints: where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing but life everlasting. In Elysium, despite the medical care and beauty of the surroundings in Elysium, people still die. Even some of the main characters of the movie still die – and yet the heaven that we are promised is a place where life is changed, not ended. Material comfort can be bought by us, but the real and authentic joy of heaven is that our place there has been bought by another – by Christ through his passion, death, and resurrection.
The questions we have to ask ourselves, then, are these: What is it that we truly desire? Is it simply a pleasure-house where all our earthly desires and material needs are met and fulfilled? Or is it something more? Is it something that goes beyond our experience of human existence and transcends the finality and provisionality of this world? That is certainly the Christian vision and hope of heaven. If we do truly desire it, then nothing else can suffice, and nothing else should occupy our time.